Stefan Freeman demonstrates how to access a swimming pool using a hydraulic… (Chris Carlson, Associated…)
With the summer pool season approaching, a battle is brewing between advocates for disabled Americans and hotel owners over how to make public swimming pools more accessible to people with disabilities.
At the center of the dispute is a new regulation that requires hotels and recreation centers that operate public pools and spas to install or order permanent lifts — costing between $2,500 and $6,500 each, plus installation — by May 21. The requirement also can be satisfied by pool ramps, which are much more expensive.
Better pool access is long overdue, said James Moses, a paralyzed Vietnam War veteran from San Pedro. At age 67, he said, he is too frail to get into a pool lift without help. But he would like hotels to offer access to all disabled guests.
"We want to be acknowledged," he added. "I want to go to a hotel and say I had a good time."
Hotel owners say they want to improve pool access. But many are resisting the new regulation and are supporting federal legislation to extend the deadline. Introduced in Congress in March, the legislation would let pool operators comply by buying portable lifts and delay implementation for 12 months.
Permanent and portable lifts cost nearly the same, but installation of permanent lifts greatly increases the cost, experts say. Pool manufacturers estimate that the law applies to about 256,000 pools and spas across the country. Only a small percentage of those pools are equipped with lifts, they estimate.
The lifts resemble small cranes that stand at a pool's edge. They basically lower swimmers in a chair into the water. Portable lifts can be rolled away from the pool when not in use. The cost to install a permanent lift ranges from $1,000 to $3,000, in addition to the cost of the lift itself, according to industry officials.
Hotel industry representatives say they are concerned that permanent lifts that are left unattended may be a safety hazard for children, who will be tempted to play on them.
A 12-month delay is also needed, they said, because a backlog of orders for permanent lifts makes it impossible to meet the May deadline.
"It gives us an opportunity to work to assure we have the equal access to pools at all our hotels," said Kevin Maher, senior vice president of government affairs for the American Hotel & Lodging Assn., the trade group for the nation's hotel industry.
Meanwhile, some hotel chain operators are rushing to install permanent lifts.
Marriott International Inc., which operates more than 3,400 hotels under 13 brands in the U.S., is "in the process of ordering the lifts" in time to meet the deadline, said company spokeswoman Laurie Goldstein. "We are moving ahead to get them installed."
Advocates for the disabled say the hotel industry has been the loudest opponent of the law. They say hotel owners knew about the requirements for nearly two years and should be prepared to meet the deadline.
"I think it needs to be abundantly clear that these rules need to be enforced," said Lara Schwartz, vice president of external affairs for the American Assn. of People with Disabilities. "We can't just kick this can down the road."
But some people with disabilities said they think portable lifts would be enough.
Scott Souza of Manteca, south of Stockton, supports the use of portable lifts. He became paralyzed in a motorcycle accident 10 years ago, and he said hotels should not be required to spend the extra money to install permanent lifts when portable lifts work just as well.
"I understand where the law is coming from," he said. "But it seems like it's going too far, particularly for small mom-and-pop hotels that can't afford the cost."
And he said he doesn't mind having to ask a hotel worker to bring out a portable lift every time he wants to swim. "I'm a mid-level quadriplegic," Souza said. "I have to deal with that stuff every single day."
The Americans With Disabilities Act calls for the owners of public pools to install lifts or underwater ramps to provide access for people with disabilities. Many in the hotel industry assumed they could comply with the law by using portable lifts. That changed when the Justice Department issued an interpretation of the law Jan. 31, saying the law calls for permanently affixed lifts where feasible and affordable.
In response to an outcry from hotel owners, the Justice Department delayed the deadline to comply until May 21. It initially was March 15.
Pool operators who do not comply with the regulations may be vulnerable to lawsuits, according to hotel industry experts.
To avoid litigation, some hotel owners who are not prepared to meet the May 21 deadline may close their pools, said Maher, the hotel trade group representative. "The concern is that we could be vulnerable to drive-by lawsuits," he said, referring to suits by lawyers seeking only to collect attorney fees.
Choice Hotels International Corp., the Maryland company that operates more than 6,000 hotels under the names Comfort Inn, Econo Lodge and Rodeway Inn, among others, has instructed its franchise hotel owners about the pending ADA deadlines.
Steve Joyce, the company's president and chief executive, said he was not sure whether the debate would be resolved soon. "We are currently on a wait-and-see mode on where this is going to end up."